Monday, April 26, 2010

Favorite bookshops

I remeber all to vividly that allure... that sheer voluptuous abundance, that could just never be mine. Oh how I desired it. Lusted for it... I am talking about a bookshop of course - as 21 year old South African staring into the wonder that was Forbidden Planet in London. There were more sf/fantasy books in that one store than in all of South Africa's shops put together (at that time - back when your parents rode to work on their dinosaurs and businesses were pretty spiffy if they had a fax machine - half a shelf of sf books was a lot). And not only did they have books by all my favorite authors, but they had OLD books of theirs. And they had shop assistants who loved and knew SF. I was going climbing for 6 weeks in a small one man tent with my girlfriend Barbara. We had about as much spare space as there is in a church-mouse's cheeks and were roughly as well-off as same church mouse (some things are a natural state of being, I guess). I still came out with 5 books - 3 of which I still have (movies have almost no retention time compared to books. The influence sphere of books goes on and on.) And they got wet and battered and re-read... and re-read.

I dreamed of going back there - It's gone bust, been sold and retail isn't what it used to be. Soulless chains full of other non-book garbage, shop assistants who can't read, let alone have read my kind of books, or, possibly worse are English literature students at the local Uni scared of being tainted by 'enjoyment' in books. Backlist? What? Order? huh?. And out of this a chaos the internet bookstore was born - which has some positives but has played havoc with the independents. But there are still are some - Here's an article a few in the UK http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/7598617/Britains-best-independent-bookshops.html

Which brings me to what I was going write about, as a sort of follow on to Dan's post. Because at the end of the day we need some way of matching readers with writers... because basically, all of them from Jeff Bezos to Steve Jobs to the CEO of McMillian are wrong. It's actually not about price - or only minorly. It's about volume. And volume only works when you match customer and product. And it's no use having a book stashed somewhere in case the customer asks for it. The customer doesn't know he wants that specific item - the customer actually has to make contact, pick it off the shelf, and like what he reads. There are what? 400 million? English first language speakers out there. And for at least half (the other half need ipods that say "breathe in-breath out" or they'd drop dead from suffocation) of them there is a book they will love, and hunt for anything else like it or written by the same author IF they find it. So... how come the entire publishing edifice is being maintained by maybe a million book a week or more regular readers? With the runaway bestsellers being maintained by the book a year people... who still at best are maybe 10-20 million. So it's an industry that simply fails to serve 90% percent of its possible customer base at all, and in fact is only working in any semblance of 'properly' for about 0.5% of its capacity. At full volume, prices of books could reflect a tiny margin per book and still be profitable. Which loops back round to bookshops and how writers interface with readers... because without that interface the system becomes even more inefficient (hard to believe). We can do without publishers... but not without that interface. Now, the logical answer to making more money out of books, is not the agency model, or even gypping authors out of more of the tiny piece of cover price they get now. It's increasing volume. And logically, the internet should make it possible. But it's a vast sea and getting the right readers to FIND the right writers for them is very very difficult. At the moment, as I see it we're reliant on bookstores (for the pick up and browse factor) and Amazon for the I know more-or-less what I am looking for match. Apple have come white-knighting to make sure publishers continue to dominate the access to retail.

So: favorite bookshops - what do they do right? And how do we match the reader writer. And what are the best options for alternative retail shop-windows?

26 comments:

Jonathan D. Beer said...

I worked for Waterstones for three years and at a Blackwell based on my uni campus for three years (some of those years overlapped - holding down two jobs and doing a degree was FUN) so I have a fair interest in the topic of bookshops.

Specifically, I love, adore and treasure them. Even ridiculous take-over-the-world, they-all-look-EXACTLY-the-same chain bookshops. The sense of being surrounded by crafted words is incomparable.

However, of the fifteen (probably) books I have bought this year, precisely one of those has been from a bookshop (King's English, Northgate, Canterbury - the shop with the delightfully wonky door). The rest have been from charity stalls and a few from Amazon.

Why is this? Price, first, foremost, and finally. I have fifteen books worth of reading enjoyment for the price of maybe six or seven from Waterstones or another shop. As much as I adore the sensation of browsing for books - which, I think, is probably the only thing bookshops have going for them, beyond the fact that you walk away with the book a reassuring weight in your bag rather than waiting for the postman - I am a chap with less money than appetite, and I have to make ends meet.

This is a real shame, too, because it will lead to the death of the bookshop (and, I think, printed fiction to an extent) as we know it. At a time when sellers are leaving titles on shelves for shorter and shorter periods, the opportunity to discover a new author at the bookshop is diminishing rapidly, as they (understandably) pack their shelves with best-seller names who they know will bring in money. So, that is their one advantage over online shopping gone. And, as this whole ebook thing grows, this will only create a greater distance between the two - a bookshop cannot afford to offer a printed book at £2.50 for the first weekend in order to attract customers to a new author.

Umm, this is a rather big rant out of nowhere. Sorry. Short answer - the death of bookshops is coming, and I can't think of anything to stop that; hell, I am part of the problem. And the problem, quite simply, is that I have finite money for book-buying, and I will spend it where I spend the least amount for the greatest product :(

PS - Don't even get me started about independent booksellers. Those guys are the living dead of the retail industry - how they survive in the world of Amazon, Waterstones and Tesco is utterly beyond me.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Book stores have to carry a limited selection at a higher price. It's great when I want to get my kids a book, because a three year old can relate to the physical sensation of being in a place. But I don't have enough time to read books that I find at random. I usually rely on recommendations from people I trust or a known brand ("Dave Freer", for example).

I'd love to have an online book store that I could trust to have good stuff. But it would have to be curated by somebody I already trust.

matapam said...

The Tower of Books on Watt Avenue. As an adult, it is a shock to see how close to home this most excellent store was. As a child it had a magical allure, and a trip there was a special treat.

For attracting readers, especially young people without the habit, online stores are at a disadvantage. Maybe. Perhaps trailers like Rowena's can bridge the gap. But there are so many youtube things out there, how are they to stand out? How about brief comic book style starts for each book? Sarah, do you have the comic for DOITD to show an example? I think I can find it if you don't.

And older readers, the kind who browse the shelves, pick out an occasional strange book and give it a try? How does an e-bookstore reproduce the experience?
Break down into genres, probably. Show the covers, well that means there has to be cover art for every book. And gets overwhelming if there are a lot of books in the store. But certainly a starting page for each genre with this month's new books and some "staff's picks" right up front. Then the listings and search functions.

The hard part will be getting people into the store in the first place.

Kate said...

I can give an idea how the independents survive in Australia (yes, they do exist, although they're certainly not huge or prestigious).

Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne each host a reasonably good SF/F specialty independent (at least one: these are what I remember) - all of them are in the downtown area, but a little ways off the main shopping zones, so the rents aren't as ruinous. All of them specifically order the books the big-box chains don't carry - that is, the US books that the UK publishers don't deign to publish.

The third factor in their continuing existence is probably the simplest - it's ruinously expensive to buy books from Amazon UK or Amazon US and ship them to Australia. You can pay $40 in shipping for a $15 book. At least in the specialty stores you can get that book for $50 instead of $65, and they don't charge you a fortune to ship from catalog.

So... yes, there is room for independent bookstores. But it's not as competitors to the big box chains - it's as a complementary service, doing the things the big boxes don't.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

My favorite bookshops were on the way up from the train station to the main shopping strip in Porto. One way or another I made it there once a week or so while in highschool -- forty minutes away as the sore-footed Sarah walked. The bottom one, nearest the station, had the hard covers, the coffee table books and -- sigh -- the imports. I went there to look, mostly, unless my birthday had just been, I was flush in pocket, and my mom hadn't reminded me I needed clothes or shoes. The upper one had the cheap editions of classics, history books, stuff -- as far as I can tell -- no one else read for pleasure. I could afford the books there once or twice a month. Which was good, because it was too small for me to stand behind a book rack reading. Not that I didn't do it. I just got thrown out of it more often than out of the lower one.

I discovered science fiction in those stores. The clerks saved the new releases for me. Heinlein. Simak, Anderson and -- at the end of my time in Portugal, McCaffrey.

Now those stores are gone -- even though they'd been there since the nineteenth century -- replaced with clothing stores. So, it's going on all over.

I really think, Dave, after a while this will shake out and electronic will be the way to go. Whether we'll ever reclaim the millions of lost readers, I don't know. First, schools need to stop treating reading as aversion therapy.

Dave Freer said...

Jonathan - I love book-shops too (except these days I find myself becoming so angry at the rows of of non-book merchandise, and the pitiful shelves of 'bestsellers').

Paperbacks (or e-books) need to be cheap. We're competing for beer-money at the bleeding edge of entertainment - If a book is costing more than 2 beers... it costs too much in this radical's playbook. At that level - if you read it once in two hours it's good value entertainment - and if it's a keeper and re-read the buyer is happy because he/she/it got a bargain. At $27 a book - I need to desperately want and need the book, and love the author's work. (That's maybe 5 meals on monkey-level self-sufficiency catering. The book needs to be a real keeper for that).

Oddly - IF the agency model becomes widespread, it may, like the book pricing thingy that used to apply in the UK, help independents. When that was abolished what really killed independents is that publishers put greed ahead of common sense and gave huge volume discounts to large chains... but did not offer the same (or better) to their best and most loyal retailers. Gee, now that is just so clever I stand aghast at the sheer genius of it - especially for genre fiction. Common sense says independents know their market, can't afford to let their predjudices get in the way of making a living (or they go bust) and thus serve that market, trying to maximise sales by matching books to customers.
If the 30% of cover price becomes standard - then books cost the same at Cosco, Amazon, and Apple, and joe-the-independent - Joe may actually outsell the other three.

Dave Freer said...

Ori - the difficulty here is the people you trust are the authors of books you like - who already are thinly stretched... :-(

Ori Pomerantz said...

Dave: Ori - the difficulty here is the people you trust are the authors of books you like - who already are thinly stretched... :-(

Ori: This is a problem, but not necessarily one that can't be solved.

1. I also have non-authors I trust to evaluate books. Toni Weisskopf springs to mind.

2. Do you read for fun sometimes? If so, you already evaluate books. Just knowing that a book has the Dave Freer seal of approval would make me more likely to read it. If you didn't like the kind of books I like, you wouldn't be able to write them.

3. Certain authors have to read others for business purposes anyway. I already discovered two authors I read regularly by collaborations with others (you and Tom Kratman, through Eric Flint and John Ringo respectively). I'm pretty sure those collaborations have been profitable for Eric Flint and John Ringo.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, my favorite bookstore was a mom and pop shop when I was younger. It was never very big, but I swear it had more books and a much better variety than the big box stores do now. It was a BOOK store. And, best of all, if it didn't have something in stock, it ordered it for you and made sure, if you told them you liked it, to have that author's next book in stock for you when it came out.

Better than that, they actively brought in authors for signings and just to sit around and talk to customers when they came in. Picture a store with aisles close enough together that it was tight for two people to try to walk past one another. In the middle of that sat a much younger Anne McCaffrey signing not only White Dragon her new book, but the first two Dragonriders of Pern books. No requirement that you buy the books there, on that day. Just that you come, enjoy yourself and don't make too big of a pest of yourself. It was the same with the other authors they brought in.

I miss that store. They fell victim to street construction that went on for more than a year after it was supposed to and then to ill-health of the owners. Even now, more than 20 years after the store closed, some of the "regulars" will run into one another somewhere and talk about the store and how we wish how it was still around. It didn't need a coffee shop or non-book merchandise or bells and whistles to make a go of it. It managed to do so on customer service and a love of books. I really do miss that.

Chris McMahon said...

I love atmosphere - the more books the better. The more old books the better. Nothing better than browsing around bookshelves. Having said that, you also want staff who know the genre. Pulp Fiction is one excellent Brisbane store.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - exactly. "Getting them to your store in first place."

ideas - readings (recorded obviously)
- competitions (name the author of our newest UF book - with a dragon on the cover. All correct entries go into a hat for the lucky of five complimentary copies of this book!
- maybe a fanfic site attached?

Dave Freer said...

Kate -so it is a fiancial and supply gap? Idly curious - is anything stopping me ordering author copies shipped in sea-freight and reselling (I'd obviously have to pay taxes etc. but I'm interested in readership, not a profit margin, I could undercut people who don't carry my books anyway.)

matapam said...

Sounds like a POD setup in Australia, specializing in US books might do well.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah you'd think it wouldbe in interests of authors, publishers distributors and retail to avoid 'aversion therapy' reading. The puzzling part is the desire to make it a social re-education and engineering tool (with out and out discrimination, sight-unseen, unread against anything that doesn't fit 'the agenda') and not to choose something the great unwashed (us) will enjoy reading, make them love reading... oh and they want to make shedloads of money out of it. Hang on. "we want you to pay us to be made miserable and to indoctrinate you to our way of seeing the world." That's bound to work... Oh wait you WILL love it because we know better than you...
Seems to be working really well.;-/

Dave Freer said...

Amanda, exactly my point -readers love interface with 'their' writers - and will promote them if they have half a chance. Yet I have read of (and experienced) the difficulty of getting your books into a local store and of a book-store wanting to CHARGE authors for doing readings. I don't want a coffee shop (nice but not needed) or a selection of cards and stationary and soft toys and... everything but books. I want shop staff who care and promote books which are a good read.

Dave Freer said...

Chris I have always been mystified about authors who disapprove of second-hand books. They got paid for them the first time, right? And if the reader loves them they'll be back. In hardcover.

I see that 'WIZARD OF KARRES' is only available as a second-hand book, as the Hardcover of the next book has come out. Now that DOES upset me, as it says I am losing money, and so is my publisher. But people buying it at scary prices? That's pure flattery. But I do regretthe ones who can't buy it easily and cheaply.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I love book stores.

I like to go into the specialty books store in Brisbane and ask the staff for interesting obscure books.

Because that is the way you find new authors.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, I agree wholeheartedly with you about wanting a BOOK store and not a store that sells books and other things. The problem here is that the big box stores have cornered the market and there are very few independent bookstores now. Whether that changes in the future -- and I think it will -- is yet to be seen.

I haven't heard about stores wanting to charge authors for readings, but it doesn't surprise me. I have been vastly underwhelmed by staff and management at most of the box stores in my area. There are two - one B&n and one Borders - that are more the exception than the rule, at least where their management is concerned. The B&N actively seeks out authors for signings and readings. They host a couple of small writers groups, including one for seniors. They work closely with local libraries to host signings where the libraries get not only a cut of sales from the authors taking part in the event but also from all sales made that day. The Borders works with our local library, even though we are not in the same town, when we host author events on our properties by donating gifts for the authors, bringing staff and stock for those authors to sell and sign. I only wish the staff at the Borders was as enthusiastic and knowledgeable as their events managers are.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

actually, Dave, I was about to type this in the messages between posters -- would you guys be interested in virtual readings and signings? Kate and Amanda found a service that hosts up to twenty people -- so, sixteen if four of us are reading. I figured we can do "signings" too by sending signed book plates to people asking for them. (For those of us overseeas you can mail them bulk here and we'll redistribute, yes?)

The reason I'm posting this here, is that I wonder if our audience will be interested. Oh, what the heck, I'll do my post about this.

Also as an additional, fanfic will DEFINITELY bring people to an online bookstore. One downside, though. It will need to be policed by someone-not-the-writer.

Dave Freer said...

Rowena - that's exactly why good retail outlets are so important

Dave Freer said...

Amanda - it's good to hear of a few bookstores that actually re using local talent. I just hope their senior executives (who, it would seem, don't read) don't try for some 'astute' new twist that takes local away from interacting with their local community (that's oddly what my Australian bank tried a few years ago. Lost them a load of rural business... so now they actually came out and said they messed up, and are turning back!)

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, yes, of course. I'm not a brilliant reader but I will give it a shot.

matapam said...

I hadn't thought about Fanfic as a draw. It's very big in Anime, with the best stories being adopted into series.

You'd need specific rules, I think. Something about allowing free posting using copyrighted characters and universes, but no monetary sales without explicit approval of the copyright holder. Something along those lines.

kesalemma said...

In Melbourne there are two specialty stores in the city - actually I think we always had two, but one closed down, and a new one started shorthly after.
The stayer, Minotaur, has gone very commercial, has higher prices, and are concentrating more on comics, anime and spec fic related merchandise, with not-so-friendly staff, but a huge range. I usually go in there to look at books that I know have come out and to decide whether I will buy them in HC or not, then go into the other one, Of Swords and Science (which would fit into Minotaur 20 times over), and if they don't have it order it in. They are cheaper, have much more friendly staff, and if you are mooching around wanting something new to read, but don't know what you're after, will make suggestions based on what they know you like, or have bought there before.
The store that used to be in the city but is no longer, still operates as a mail order business (Slow Glass), attends most local conventions, and the person who runs it is a regular at the Melbourne Science Fiction Club. If it's something I don't mind waiting for, or know well in advance that I want, I will order from him. Mostly, it's books I have found as free e-books, but want the hard copy, and the rest of the series. He also mails out regular catalogues, including blurbs and sometimes reviews.
I want somewhere I can be comfortable going into at whatever time, whether I have the money to buy or not, speak to the staff, browse, and know I'm supporting the local economy. The only books I buy over the internet are e-books, and usually they will be ARC's of books from series that I just can't wait for the hard copy of. Which I will then buy locally.

The only reason I go into the big, non-specialist book stores is if I'm looking for non-fiction.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam, it's an idea that needs refinement, but should work. The key is to have something about the site that gets tweeted and re-tweeted - or gets pointed to. Competitions are good too.

Dave Freer said...

Kesalemma - I think that's what drew me to Forbidden planet so. The feeling I'd come home. A place where they were happy to have me just because I loved sf and Fantasy, even though they had 20 000 books and I barely had money for five paperbacks. It's a similar feeling in a way to being at a con :-)